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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Liberia: Human Rights Report

Liberia: Human Rights Report
Date distributed (ymd): 971211
Document reposted by APIC

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: West Africa
Issue Areas: +political/rights+ +security/peace+
Summary Contents:
Human Rights Watch/Africa has released a new report: "Emerging from the Destruction: Human Rights Challenges Facing the New Liberian Government." It makes recommendations concerning return of refugees and internally displaced people, rebuilding state institutions and dealing with past abuses.

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Human Rights Watch
485 Fifth Avenue
New York, NY 10017-6104
Tel: 212/972-8400
Fax: 212/972-0905

1522 K Street, NW
Washington D.C. 20005
Tel: 202/371-6592
Fax: 202/371-0124

Gopher: gopher://
Listserv instructions: To subscribe to the sub-Saharan Africa-specific list (to receive press releases and public letters only on sub-Saharan Africa), send a message to with "subscribe hrw-news-africa" in the body of the message (leave the subject line blank).

For Further Information, Contact:
Binaifer Nowrojee (617)493-2990 (Cambridge, MA)
Peter Takirambudde (212)972-8400 (New York, NY)
Janet Fleischman (202)371-6592 (Washington, D.C.)


(New York, November 17, 1997)--While the end of the war has brought much-needed peace and security, Liberia's state institutions and economy have been destroyed. In "Emerging from the Destruction: Human Rights Challenges Facing the New Liberian Government," released today, Human Rights Watch finds the human rights situation to be precarious. A culture of violence, ethnic tension and impunity has taken root, and the next steps by the new government will determine whether Liberia will emerge from the chaos that marked its recent history. Human Rights Watch identifies the key challenges facing the administration of President Charles Taylor, and calls for sustained attention to human rights during this critical transition period. " Four months after taking office, President Taylor is facing enormous challenges in rebuilding a country that was virtually destroyed by the warring factions," said Peter Takirambudde, Executive Director for Africa at Human Rights Watch. "But if Liberia is to successfully reconcile and rebuild, this government will need to prioritize institution-building and protection of human rights. Our report provides an analysis of the current situation and offers detailed recommendations which, if followed by the relevant government and international agencies, will lay the basis for long-term peace and development."

According to Human Rights Watch, this transition period provides a rare opportunity to develop new state institutions that can operate to secure respect for human rights. While President Taylor has promised to uphold human rights and has taken some initial steps, Human Rights Watch believes that more must be done, particularly to ensure the safe and voluntary return of the one million refugees and internally displaced, to rebuild the law enforcement and justice institutions, and to deal with past abuses of human rights.

The Taylor government came into office on August 2, 1997 following an election that ended a seven-year civil war. Tens of thousands of Liberians were killed during the war and almost half the country's population displaced. Despite the presence of regional peacekeepers and a United Nations military observer mission, fighting resumed numerous times during the war, and the number of factions proliferated over the years. All the factions, including Charles Taylor's faction, were responsible for terrorizing the local populations in order to loot and to discourage support for rival factions. Widespread atrocities against civilians were committed including killings, torture, forced labor, and extortion.

The Human Rights Watch report recommends to the Taylor government that it pay particular attention to the following human rights issues in the rebuilding process:

  1. Return of Refugees and the Internally Displaced

In order for the one million refugees and internally displaced Liberians to return home, Human Rights Watch recommends that the Liberian government actively extend political assurances of safety and provide material assistance. The voluntary return of the refugees will be assisted by the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). However, once they return, they will require government assistance to rebuild their homes and community institutions to become self-sufficient. While most will be able to return home, some will face difficulties that the government must address. Some returnees may find their homes occupied. In other cases, refugee from ethnic or political groups previously targeted by Taylor's warring faction, may fear persecution or be unwilling to return. The organized return of refugees and the internally displaced should not be called for by the government or UNHCR until the political situation stabilizes further and some basic services are restored inside the country.

Although international assistance will be extended to refugees, there is much less assistance available to those internally displaced. Thousands of internally displaced are living in squalid conditions, particularly in the greater Monrovia area. The Liberian government body tasked with the responsibility of returning the refugee and internally displaced, the Liberia Refugee, Repatriation and Resettlement Commission, remains under funded and virtually non-functional. This body needs to be given the funding and the authority to design programs that can return people to their homes.

2. Rebuilding State Institutions

Human Rights Watch calls on the government to streamline, screen and reconstitute the Ministry of Justice, the courts, the police, the security forces and the prison administration to guarantee greater accountability and respect for human rights. The report calls on the government to resist the pressure to reward former faction fighters responsible for gross violations of human rights by giving them government jobs in the new army or police force. In addition to hiring and training qualified personnel, the government should create an independent oversight commission with the authority to monitor and investigate abuses by police and security forces. In a commendable move, the government recently created a Commission on Human Rights. This welcome step must be followed by government support for the work of the commission. The commission will require sufficient funding, authority, and independence to investigate human rights complaints and to institute legal proceedings on behalf of victims of abuse of state power.

3. Dealing with Past Abuses

Having emerged from a situation of brutal conflict where civilians were overwhelmingly targeted by all factions, the government should take steps to hold those responsible for committing gross violations of human rights accountable for their crimes. The peace accords, that give immunity to faction fighters for abuses in the course of military action should not apply to atrocities against civilians. Where former combatants wantonly committed abuses against civilians, they should be held accountable in a court of law. Human Rights Watch calls on the government to create a Truth Commission, to collect testimony and evidence about the wrongs committed during the course of the war and publicly name those responsible for the acts.

In dealing with past abuses, the government should pay special attention to the effects of the widespread sexual violence committed against women during the war, since the stigma attached to this crime and its under reported nature, often result in the after effects being overlooked. Women also continue to be subjected to discriminatory customary provisions which, among other things, prevent them from inheriting property. With a larger number of widows and female-headed households as a result of the war, Human Rights Watch urges the legislature to repeal such discriminatory provisions.

The process of demobilizing former fighters remains incomplete. Although some 21,315 of an estimated 33,000 have been disarmed, the chain of command in many places remains intact, posing a threat of renewed mobilization for political or criminal violence. Former fighters, particularly, child soldiers, need to be returned to their home areas and to be given schooling or vocational opportunities.

The Human Rights Watch report also calls on the international community to sustain its attention to the rebuilding attention in Liberia, and to make respect for human rights a condition of international aid and assistance. The regional peacekeeping operation and the U.N. Military Observer mission will depart shortly. Bilateral donors, the European Union, a small U.N. peace-building unit and the U.N. Development Program (UNDP) will be playing a key role in the country. It is incumbent on the U.N., as well as bilateral donors and international nongovernmental groups, to ensure that human rights issues are the cornerstone of their program assistance to Liberia.

Copies of this report are available from the Publications Department, Human Rights Watch, 485 Fifth Ave. New York, NY 10017 for $10.50 (domestic shipping) $15 (international shipping). Visa and MasterCard accepted.

The Africa division of Human Rights Watch was established in 1988 to monitor and promote the observance of internationally recognized human rights in sub-Saharan Africa. Peter Takirambudde is the executive director; Janet Fleischman is the Washington director; Suliman Ali Baldo is the senior researcher; Alex Vines is the research associate; Bronwen Manby and Binaifer Nowrojee are counsels; Ariana Pearlroth and Juliet Wilson are associates; Alison DesForges is a consultant; and Peter Bouckaert is the Orville Schell Fellow. William Carmichael is the chair of the advisory committee.

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC), the educational affiliate of the Washington Office on Africa. APIC's primary objective is to widen the policy debate in the United States around African issues and the U.S. role in Africa, by concentrating on providing accessible policy-relevant information and analysis usable by a wide range of groups and individuals.

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